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Matthew Di Carlo: A Review of the Latest TFA Study

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Matthew Di Carlo of the Albert Shanker Institute of the American Federation of Teachers is neither pro-TFA nor anti-TFA.

 

Here he reviews the latest study of TFA by Mathematica.

 

It has been widely reported that the study found little or no difference between the test scores of the students taught by TFA and by regular teachers. TFA saw that as a victory, since it presumably showed that no training or experience was needed to achieve the same results. Others saw it as a repudiation of TFA’s oft-repeated claims that their recruits were superior to career teachers.

 

Di Carlo parses the results and reaches this conclusion:

 

Now, on the one hand, it’s absolutely fair to use the results of this and previous TFA evaluations to suggest that we may have something to learn from TFA training and recruitment (e.g., Dobbie 2011). Like all new teachers, TFA recruits struggle at first, but they do seem to perform as well as or better than other teachers, many of whom have had considerably more experience and formal training.

 

On the other hand, as I’ve discussed before, there is also, perhaps, an implication here regarding the “type” of person we are trying to recruit into teaching. Consider that TFA recruits are the very epitome of the hard-charging, high-achieving young folks that many advocates are desperate to attract to the profession. To be clear, it is a great thing any time talented, ambitous, service-oriented young people choose teaching, and I personally think TFA deserves credit for bringing them in. Yet, no matter how you cut it, they are, at best, only modestly more effective (in raising math and reading test scores) than non-TFA teachers.

 

This reflects the fact that identifying good teachers based on pre-service characteristics is extraordinarily difficult, and the best teachers are very often not those who attended the most selective colleges or scored highly on their SATs. And yet so much of our education reform debate is about overhauling long-standing human resource policies largely to attract these high-flying young people. It follows, then, that perhaps we should be very careful not to fixate too much on an unsupported idea of the “type” of person we want to attract and what they are looking for, and instead pay a little more attention to investigating alternative observable characteristics that may prove more useful, and identifying employment conditions and work environments that maximize retention of effective teachers who are already in the classroom.

 

For me, the problem with all such studies is the assumption that the best (perhaps the only) way to identify the best teachers is by comparing changes in test scores. Great teachers supposedly get higher scores than mediocre teachers. I think that places far too much faith in standardized testing and in the assumption that education is solely measured by those tests. It makes the tests the arbiters of all things, even though most teachers do not teach tested subjects. Test-based findings are even more suspect when the children are very young.

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